building research capacity

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Africa » Ethiopia » Oromia Region » Jimma
June 17th 2012
Published: June 21st 2012
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It definitely takes a couple of weeks of spending time in a new place before you start to recognize patterns in people’s behaviors and interactions. For instance, just yesterday I realized that the reason why people say “Fine!” to me is because they are asking, “Are you fine?” And now that I have been here long enough and people are comfortable with me, all sorts of conversations are starting to open up. Yesterday one of my students told me I look older because I wear long skirts and walk slowly. It was only when I put on slacks and trail shoes that he said I look my age. (Thanks for the advice!) I had to explain to him that the clothes I wear in Africa are actually a bit different from my American dress, as a woman showing her knees here is inappropriate.

I’ve also been learning quite a bit about 20-something men, since close to 90% of the students on campus are of this demographic. I’ve learned about their girlfriends or lack thereof, their embarrassment of going into pharmacies to buy condoms, their use of free online porn to learn new sexual positions, their nervousness around much more experienced university professors who often keep them from feeling like they can ask questions or offer critiques, and their dreams post-graduate school. I’ve learned about their families and the desire to have boy children (since that is the “Ethiopian cultural context,” as they say), and how they were raised in often rural areas drinking milk from each of their family’s 5 cows every day so that they would grow up healthy. I also got to see the room of one of my students…a very simple concrete room with a mattress on the floor, a wooden nightstand, and 2 concrete stones attached to a rusty metal bar so that he can lift weights. He goes outside to use a latrine, and with the electricity out on a regular basis, this can often be a challenge. He seemed embarrassed by the room, or maybe was expecting it not to meet my expectations, explaining that he only uses it to sleep. I did my best to reassure him that I, too, was once a student trying to survive on little money, only buying what I absolutely needed. Sure, I had a bathroom in my tiny apartment during graduate school and electricity and internet. But I think it made him feel less “third world” when I explained my own hardships during my young adult years.

The few women I do come into contact with tend to be cleaning and cooking staff at the university and hotel. They now know what I like to eat and drink, and if I mix things up they get confused. They watch me shyly wherever I go, and I can tell they are chatting about me whenever one of my male students or colleagues comes to meet me for a meeting over cappuccino. And I have to be careful not to leave dirty clothes on the floor of my room, or else they will be washed in a bucket somewhere, no matter how disgusting and sweaty.

The cockroaches seem to have decreased in number, or else I have just grown accustomed to them, until of course one crawls on me. But last night I had a new visitor…a big rat scurrying around on my tiny balcony. My balcony doors are now staying shut, no matter how warm it gets. Luckily the weather has been mostly a pleasant temperature.

No water again today, which means no shower and no flushing of the toilet. Dust is starting to cover everything in my room, so zipping and unzipping of bags is a must. I’ve pretty much lost my appetite, as I eat the same thing for every meal…injera with meat in a spicy tomato based sauce, injera with lentils, or spaghetti bolognaise. I tried fish goulash at lunch today but just couldn’t stomach it. One student commented that I am getting thin. I guess an Ethiopian diet is one way to jump-start some weight loss.

This week has just been a routine of teaching in the morning and grading assignments and catching up on other work in the afternoons and evenings, sending any emails in my outbox whenever the internet decides it wants to work for a few minutes. For the first assignment for my course, my students were supposed to conduct 2 in-depth interviews about a topic of their choice and transcribe the interviews and summarize them in a paper. Many of them did not turn it in yet, but of those who have, they have been really interesting. There have been interviews about HIV stigma in Jimma, university students’ perceptions of condoms, experiences with khat chewing (a local herb that contains amphetamines and is legal to consume), and hand washing behavior. I am actually learning a lot by grading these assignments, which is what I was hoping for. But the English skill level is not that great, so I spend a lot of time editing grammar and spelling—something I do not have to do, but I see it as a way to help them with that part of their academics as well.

On Monday I sat in on 5 different masters thesis defenses done by students in the Health Sciences Department. There was one on sexual coercion on university campuses, one on HIV stigma, and one on people seeking HIV treatment by visiting a holy water site outside of Addis. Some of the studies were fascinating. But I noticed that a lot of the students just copy and paste things they have seen in others’ PowerPoint slides or in textbooks that explain what they did in their research, for example, that they triangulated their research findings from several different data sources. I am learning that often students know what it is they have to do theoretically, but when it comes to actual application of the research or analysis skills, they have a very difficult time. Luckily the assignments I chose force them to practice qualitative methodologies, and they seem to really appreciate having the opportunity to try out these newly learned skills. The application piece is a big gap in the education process here.

Otherwise, daily life in Jimma continues…porridge for breakfast, class, a macchiato break, class, lunch, grading and catching up on work, dinner, watching TV on one of 5 channels or spending time with locals. I’ve gotten into a routine, and with that have adapted to my surroundings rather easily. It’s amazing how quickly a routine can make a completely new life style more comfortable, even with cockraches and without water and electricity.


4th July 2012

Your focus was mainly on bad experiances
You have tried to express what you are facing here in Ethiopia. I know life in Ethiopia will be difficult for you since you are from US, where everything is perfect. I don\'t have any argument for the points you mentioned but at least you have to mention good experiances too. The cockraches, life without water and electricity... hmmm; anyway there are houses for rent which have 24 hr water and electricity services and no cockraches. I\'m sure you can afford the price and you should have to live there. Don\'t be amazed for the bad experiances you are suffering here; you would have to expect it before you came to Ethiopa. I\'m affraid because you will be busy in editing my grammar and spelling errors; my English skill level is not that great. So I shall stop writting my comment here. Thanks, i like your openness. Good to hear from you! Abere Shiferaw Haramaya University Harar, Ethiopia

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